“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being somebody, to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over animation. One can either see or be seen.” — John Hoyer Updike.
Cleveland Browns fans in recent days have accused their team of too little action on this year’s free agent front but, since the beginning of the new year, they’ve posted a dozen signings including three defensive backs, three wide receivers and two quarterbacks … two tall quarterbacks. The Josh McCown signing was a clear signal to Brian Hoyer that his hometown coupon had expired. The “Thad-Lewis-makes-four” signing wasn’t all that unusual. But the flames of speculation that no one is dousing, that the Browns aren’t yet finished with quarterback transactions this year, does seem to raise obvious doubts about whether their 22nd overall pick from last year’s draft will be back. And whether he can come back.
Up to, but not including, his first year in the NFL, the football career of Jonathan Paul Manziel was transcendent. As a two-year starting quarterback at both Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas and at Texas A&M University, Johnny Manziel made extraordinary plays, accumulated an extraordinary set of statistics and received extraordinary awards. He won the 2012 Manning Award, the 2012 Davey O’Brien Award and the 2012 Heisman Trophy, in each case, becoming the first freshman ever to win the award. Even his highlight video was described by scouts and coaches as incomparable. It just went on and on and on with one dazzling play after another.
It just went on and on and on with one dazzling play after another.
Being seen! One year after the seismic upset of Manziel’s Texas A&M team over Alabama, the media buildup to the September 2013 re-match reached new heights of absurdity. CBS actually came up with the idea of a “Johnny cam,” an extra camera that would be deployed solely to focus continually throughout the game on one player, Johnny Manziel.
A&M head coach, Kevin Sumlin, lamented this all-too familiar media emphasis on the individual rather than the team. He said, “… I just don’t understand … that’s not what we’re about, not what we’re trying to promote … I don’t think this helps enhance the team concept one bit.” Such voices are almost always drowned out by those in the boisterous business of sports entertainment. But what is the effect on the subject of such attention? And at what point does he become confused between the reality show … and reality?
Anyone who has heard the story of Manziel’s commitment to glitz, to the party life, to the idea of intoxication-on-display as entertainment, must surely wonder if this 18/19/20 year-old had any significant influence in his life that sought to apply the brakes to this off-road speedster. After all, it wasn’t enough that fans and fellow students gave him the moniker of “Johnny Football” before the start of the 2012 season. Some adult in the room must have taken the lead in making the nickname a registered trademark.
Johnny Manziel’s association with quarterback guru, George Whitfield Jr is well documented in Bruce Feldman’s book, “The QB.” So is the work Manziel did following the 2013 season with one of Whitfield’s colleagues, Kevin O’Connell, a former NFL backup quarterback and newly-hired Browns QB coach. Manziel hadn’t done much work in the weight room in the twelve months prior to January 2014, so Whitfield’s agenda for him at that point included a heavy commitment to weight lifting to give him a pumped up, more durable appearance for the NFL draft. O’Connell quizzed and grilled Manziel extensively on reading and attacking defenses and on NFL terminology. And he told Manziel, “You’re already ten times further along than I thought you’d be … there ain’t no reason in the world why you can’t be the number one pick in the draft.” But the coaches at A&M and Manziel, himself, had already given indications that he had never really done much work in the film room or with analytics. When his QB coach at A&M asked him once if he understood how one of their opponents was trying to defense him, Manziel just blew him off, saying, “Nah, I’m just playin’ ball, man.” O’Connell also coached him on how to converse with NFL coaches and scouts. He said, “You can take a perceived weakness and turn it into a strength in reality in a ten-minute conversation with a GM.” But what weaknesses of Johnny Manziel, one wonders, could be turned into a strength in one ten-minute conversation?
On March 27, 2014 prior to the NFL draft, he wowed observers yet again with an outstanding workout at Texas A&M’s Pro Day. And yet, in spite of the accumulation of his on-field successes, Manziel had as many acrimonious detractors as he had fawning, unrealistic supporters, all of which led to his being seen as a polarizing figure. Some fans loved his money sign. Others considered it arrogant and ill-advised. Some claimed that Johnny Football said “all the right things” to NFL GMs, coaches, scouts and the media. Others felt he was just well-rehearsed. And most curious, many thought his celebrity life-style could be an image boost for the team drafting him, giving the team a kind of pop culture status symbol. But others complained of the hollow and irrelevant nature of such show-biz considerations.
On May 8, 2014, Johnny Manziel was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round with the 22nd overall pick. His selection did, indeed, lead to Cleveland getting a larger share of media attention but, by the end of the season, it was mostly unwanted media attention.
Browns fans may never know the details of how the coaching staff and front office really felt about Manziel during and after his first professional season but there were plenty of indications they didn’t think he was very professional. They didn’t seem too happy with his level of commitment and preparedness or with the many off-field distractions. Could they have known that the “partying lifestyle” attributed to him was (as it so often turns out to be) a euphemism for something far more serious?
Prior to the 2014 draft, the experts were poles apart in their opinions about Johnny Manziel. His detractors felt his scrambling, wide-open offensive skills were not transferrable to the NFL in spite of the fact that Manziel’s relevant statistics contradicted that claim. On the other hand the praises sung by his supporters seemed, at times, embarrassingly over-the-top, predicting sure-fire stardom in his future. In the end, the experts just seemed to cancel out each others’ claims by reducing their analyses to whether or not they loved him or despised him. Clearly the “experts” were missing something here, some unseen quality that has much more to do with success in this world than fame, fortune or even raw talent.
So, let’s say you’re General Manager Ray Farmer or Head Coach Mike Pettine, and you’re young and have the potential for a long, exciting, lucrative career in the NFL. To what extent do you feel your own future is dependent on the success of Johnny Manziel? And even though you know in your heart that it takes a great deal more than one player, the quarterback, to make or break a team’s success, to what extent are you willing to place a sizable part of your team’s future in the hands of Johnny Manziel? Aren’t you asking yourself and each other, can Johnny Manziel come back? Should he come back?
And if you’re Johnny Manziel, you’ve had plenty of time the past couple months to think about all this, to comb through the crash debris of your first NFL season, and you are undoubtedly asking yourself the same questions.